Cleveland Watkiss is a singer with a huge wealth and diversity of experience. Despite his many different collaborations and projects he is still primarily regarded as a Jazz vocalist, due to the improvisatory nature of his solo work. However, he has moved beyond Jazz into a much wider sound world, drawing from all the different threads of his past. This world is where he and both TIC and TOC met for this latest Club Vocale.
First Set: TOC & Cleveland
As a member of TOC I had the privilege of performing in this concert, joining TIC, Cleveland and, of course, Jenni. I remember commenting to my neighbour, standing in choir formation: "I'm a little more nervous about this one!" I think we all were feeling this, performing alongside such formidable forces. In a previous article I described the unique nature of performance nerves, when what you're going to perform is as yet undetermined. We rehearse the process of course but all material is to be born in the moment. This gives everything an 'edge' of anticipation, an almost volatile atmospheric charge. After all, literally anything could happen.
TOC is a community choir and listening back to the performance it seems to give a deeper meaning to this term. Our voices are a community of sound. Imagine diverse members of a community assembling for a discussion. It could involve a great many challenges in mediating such a gathering, with some voices being dominate, others unheard, conflict, judgement, disagreement etc. In this community there is a respect for each other's sound and idea. There is a conscious intent to listen and an acceptance of what is being heard. Listening to my fellow singers I feel touched as each courageously steps forward and gives of their own uniqueness. I think one can hear and know something of each other that isn't perceived in normal spoken expression and interaction. Being essentially amateurs, and in an improvised arena, everything comes enthused with a vulnerability that everyone can feel and constitutes part of the choir's appeal. There is a kind of strength that can be found in the expression of this felt vulnerability.
As our community of voices began each piece, offering ideas in turn, Jenni took them into her hands and reinforced them into elemental forces. These micro-climates accumulated into systems of shifting substance and form. Sometimes amorphous, undulating over each other as clouds amass and thin over field and mountain. Other times, patterns became riveted into a dance of parts that interlaced over and around each other, driving the system forward. As the form turned over itself, boring its way onwards, single voices pulled themselves away to explore a temporary independence before merging back into the whole. And whilst these creations unfolded and refolded, Cleveland added his own colours and decoration, or generously helped us along with a strong rhythmic ostinato. He slotted in his manifold motives and loops into the mechanism, adding a novel and stimulating dimension to our sound. When he took charge, he charged the performance with a vital spirit that felt a celebration of sound.
We are constantly learning how to listen more intently to each other in order to join the other in their offered idea, to fortify, harmonise or embellish. Listening is almost more important than the doing in this way. As a musician of a non-vocal sort, this process has began to inform my other musical activities and I am becoming a better musician because of it.
Second Set: Cleveland solo, followed by TIC and Cleveland
When I write about TIC, I am there watching each performance. My internal experience is different to that of singing in TOC, as I am not inside it in the same way. It is, therefore, my subjective response to The Improvisers’ Choir. It is both a description and an interpretation of the sound worlds that they inhabit during their performance. I tend to leave my compositional head behind and instead just revel in the images, sensations and inspirations that they conjure. Here then, are my responses to a selection of TIC and Cleveland's devised-improvised works of the second half of Club Vocale. Altogether there were five pieces, I’ve commented on three for brevity’s sake.
To open the second half, Mr Watkiss stepped up to offer us his own unique extemporised explorations. He has an extensively rich range of styles, techniques and experiences to draw from. He began, making his first impression upon the blank canvas with a solo exploratory line - broken - stepped - turned and twined, sliding into place, floating on a resting place, spanning space. A fluent flamboyancy on waves of ideas.
Searching and seeking, revelling in every note and node, textured breath and roundness of tone. Following himself round and round, turning over the layers of warm sound.
An anthem, reminiscent of Purcell, steered onto the rails of a rolling beat that carried the idea forward and up into another age. An age where style, tradition, convention and progression can interface with unconstrained freedom and play.
Resting into the essence of what is there, he plays, stirring the surface with free-form syllables and melismas, cushioned on the vibrations of the running wheels
Mathematic - Polyrhythmic. The game of a countdown gone crazy. Never ending, voices rotating around dials of different dimensions. Cogs turning: meeting, parting, interlocking and unlocking. Building into a maniacal mechanism that starts to breathe a clockwork breath. Cables and levers pick them up and carry them across and into the distance.
Starkly contrasting ethnicities begin to spurt out of the device, acting to lubricate and soften as the pulsations synchronise and meld into one thumping agreement.
Breathe in Breathe out (titled by Kate Shortt after hearing the piece)
Sighing voices fall beneath a touching refrain, so comfortably persistent. Voices begin to reinforce, growing into a harmony of tantalising proportions. A geometry that expands and contracts, opens and dilates, then draws in to form clusters of fibres that bind. Together, somehow, they magically become transfigured into ancient and cosmic winds, blowing through and around him, embracing the so human refrain.
Then a new voice steps forward to sing their own perception and voice their own history, as its brethren grow and swell, pushing her backwards into even more ancient times - before man and before the times of legends and Angels.
Through the Veil
Descending ever downward. Gasps and swallows, trembling, shivering. Coming to rest uneasily on a squeezed and narrow respirating rhythm. This pattern has a flaw, that doesn't sit right, a crack! And from within this awkward opening the light of nascent hallelujahs begin to peak through, an uneasy birth of potential deliverance.
The perturbation of these two forces illuminate an incompatibility of Human and Divine. The jarring sensation of the Human condition - a stark silhouette against an all too perfect light. Striving, as the forever unanswered yearning of our hearts, calling out for something more - for completion - for resolution.
Third Set: TIC TOC & Cleveland - To the Paradise Land
As a culmination to this exposition of extemporised voice, Jenni invited everyone onto stage for a final meeting on the field of potential. TOCs initiated the first fledging ideas and the ever supportive and generous TICs joined us, helping us on our way. Quickly, this new, wider community sounded its tutti expression, rolling its way down a road with momentum and motivation. Jenni and Cleveland joined and delighted with a discourse on this "road to freedom".
In their wake resounded a series of further duets from members of TIC and TOC, and everyone really went for it! Cleveland shifted the gears and ramped up the rhythmic impetus, impelling us onto a fast train forwards.
There was a hint of Gospel about the accompaniment, and a member of TIC offered us some words, telling us where this train would be taking take us: "to the paradise land".